With King Mohammed VI’s storied commitment to African integration, it is about time that talks of Morocco’s insufficient or debatable Africanness become obsolete.
Rabat – Since Morocco’s triumphant return — or admission, depending on your perspective — to the African Union (AU), Africa has become a staple in King Mohammed VI’s “royal instructions” and the larger Moroccan political discourse.
From continental sporting and cultural events to high-level diplomatic gatherings, Morocco has capitalized on every available opportunity to flaunt its African filiation, its “pan-African vocation,” and its “natural right” to the much-coveted leadership roles in a continent it now calls its “institutional” family or home.
In a recent book on Africa-Morocco relations since King Mohammed VI ascended the throne in 1999, Amine Harastani Madani makes the argument that it has become “unthinkable” to speak about African integration without mentioning Morocco. Rabat’s return to the AU was “a major achievement for the kingdom’s foreign policy and is part of its ambition to make Africa an important global player,” he said.
Brahim Fassi-Fihri, one of the most active exponents of Morocco’s “African turn,” agrees.
“Morocco has always been a key player in all African issues,” Fihri recently told Morocco World News in an emailed response.
“This was reinforced by the AU return, given that just one year after its admission, the kingdom was also elected to the AU’s Peace and Security Council. Moreover, Morocco remains the link between Africa and the rest of the world on questions of peace and security in the continent.”
With Africa being an essential part of the daily drumbeat of Moroccan news for the past three years, it was only natural that, as COVID-19 cases surged, King Mohammed VI would offer Morocco’s help, guidance, or expertise as the pandemic threatened to severely hit economies across Africa.
On April 13, amid fears and apprehension that the pandemic would be a unique test for countries in Africa with a history of institutional ineptitude and government malpractice, King Mohammed VI held a phone conversation with Ivorian and Senegalese presidents Alassane Ouattara and Macky Sall.
In the “brotherly” call, the Moroccan monarch proposed a joint African initiative to set up a pan-African platform to guide and accompany African countries as they painfully negotiated their way through the different phases of the pandemic.
To Ouattara and Sall, representatives of two countries that have come to symbolize the depth and allure of Morocco’s African presence, the monarch spoke of the urgency of “pan-African solidarity” and the indispensability of intra-African expertise sharing.
By June, as Morocco controlled — and seemed to have largely defeated — what can now reasonably be called its first COVID-19 wave, the King brought to fruition the pan-African commitment he had spoken of in the call with the Ivorian and Senegalese leaders.
Under “high royal instructions,” Morocco sent medical supplies to 15 African countries, including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea, and Senegal.
The first part of Morocco’s COVID-19 aid included 8 million masks, 900,000 visors, 600,000 hygiene caps, 60,000 gowns, and 30,000 liters of hydroalcoholic gel. The second batch consisted of 75,000 boxes of chloroquine and 15,000 boxes of azithromycin, the two medications that make up the still-in-question treatment protocol believed to have been life-saving for COVID-19 patients across Africa.
As they reacted to the news of Morocco’s “show of pan-African solidarity,” a number of African leaders said the move was yet another confirmation of what most Africa watchers already knew about King Mohammed VI’s Morocco: That its commitment to African causes is historical and undoubted.
“The heart of Morocco has always been in Africa and this goes back to the African national liberation era,” said Quartey Kwesi, the deputy chairman of the African Union Commission.
Sarah Mbi Enow Anyang Agbor, the AU Commissioner for Human Resources, was unstinting in her praise of Morocco’s growing continental assertiveness. “We have a shared responsibility towards our continent… We must draw inspiration from the example set by King Mohammed VI,” she said.
While Rabat flexes its pan-African muscles, however, critics have raised dismissive eyebrows. They maintain that the country is only responding to economic and geostrategic imperatives.
As Africa becomes an essential geopolitical battleground for the years and decades to come, Morocco simply wants to position itself for that much-feted African future, they say. As such, Morocco’s much-publicized Africanness is seen as merely conditional or transactional. It is all about changing the political discourse—with no discernible changes taking place in reality.
On migration, for example, the reported crackdowns on irregular migrants have reinforced the perception that all the official talks and conferences about Morocco’s “pan-African migration policy” can no longer conceal the grim reality on the ground. That Morocco’s professed pan-Africanism crashes in the face of the slightest scrutiny of how most Moroccans still perceive Africa and “Africans.”
Morocco and blackness
On the racial terrain, some postulate that in Morocco, as elsewhere throughout the Maghreb, blackness and Africanness have historically been perceived in a negative light.
With this in mind, the idea has taken root that the discrepancy between Morocco’s professed “pan-African vocation” and the reported ill-treatment of its growing sub-Saharan population has to do with a history of slavery and racism inherited from the period of trans-Saharan slavery.
Historian Chouki El Hamel’s 2012 book, “Black Morocco,” which provides invaluable insights into the history of the racialization of blackness in Moroccan culture, is perhaps the most eloquent enabler of such interpretations. El Hamel speaks of a historical moment that continues to dictate how most Moroccans relate to Africans from the south of the Sahara.
Transposed in the current moment, the argument is pretty basic. It maintains that when you take out the triumphantly narrated AU return and its ensemble, you are left with a country whose sense of Africanness is still shaky, tenuous.
A 2008 study by the Moroccan Association of Migrant Studies and Research (AMERM) found that 40% of Moroccans did not identify with sub-Saharan migrants as neighbors. 70% would refuse to share housing with them, while another 60% would not marry “an African.”
The numbers are revealing. Not only did the majority of Moroccans not identify with the continent, but they tended to view “Africans” in a completely negative light.
The Moroccan imaginary, the idea goes, has been pervaded by patronizing images of the continent. The idea here is that denial or rejection of Africanness was part and parcel of the state-led Arabization that marked the first decades of post-independence Morocco.
That perception gained particular traction when, as I reported last year, Morocco furiously left the Organization of African Unity (the precursor of the AU) in 1987 in protest of the body’s recognition of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), the Polisario-proclaimed state in Western Sahara.
What added insult to injury, however, was Rabat’s 1987 bid to join the European Union. Morocco’s critics still use that episode to dismiss the country’s newfound sense of commitment to the pan-African ideals it helped create and nurture at the dawn of postcolonial Africa.
The Mohammed VI Factor
Under King Mohammed VI, however, and especially since Morocco’s return to Africa’s continental union, the narrative has drastically changed. In conversations among sub-Saharans in Morocco, it is common to hear hearty acknowledgments of the changes in Moroccans’ perceptions of “black Africans.”
One recurring point is how Morocco has been demarcating itself from North Africa’s historical, and still prevailing, racism against “black Africans.” There is an unmitigated sentiment that King Mohammed VI is reconciling Morocco with its Africanness.
The idea is that while the country’s increasing sub-Saharan populations still experience some sequels of the once structural racism, the level of hostility has stratospherically decreased. Morocco, a number of migrants told me in December 2018, is safer for sub-Saharans.
When asked about whether Morocco is authentically African, Patrick Dieudonne Belinga Ondoua, a doctoral candidate at the University of Geneva’s Global Studies Institute, offers a sense of scale, context, and proportion.
History and societal evolutions are a complex business and it is not reasonable to rely on passionate finger-pointing or enthusiastic cries of approval or disapproval here and there to make up one’s mind, he argued. For him, Africans need new narratives that go beyond dogged devotion to an elusive authenticity.
An anti-essentialism scholar (his first book is a stinging critique of the authenticity priests and the self-proclaimed custodians of pan-African sensibility), Belinga says that Africa today needs all the forces and energies it can muster to face its demons.
What does that say of Morocco’s African diplomacy? Ondoua’s answer, a variant of what I have called “clear-eyed pan-Africanism,” is that to be African or pan-African today is, essentially, to be genuinely interested in African lives and be willing to take part in the struggle to make things better. Everything else, especially self-righteous demands of authenticity and purity, is nothing less than a pointless infatuation with a deeply flawed idea of Africa.
In the policymaking world, discourse is as important as actions. More often than not, actions follow an ideological line, a well-drawn path. As Morocco’s political discourse irrevocably embraces Africa and adopts pan-Africanism-suffused language, it is about time that talks of Morocco’s insufficient or debatable Africanness become obsolete.